9: The (re)-emergence of civil society in areas of state weakness: the case of education in Burma/Myanmar[1]

Jasmin Lorch

Table of Contents

Civil society in the context of authoritarianism and state weakness: some theoretical reflections
Civil society under authoritarian rule
Spaces for civil society in areas of state weakness
The weakness of the state-run education system
Civil society-based education systems in government-controlled areas
Buddhist monastic education
Extra tuition, early childhood development, professional skills training and capacity building: the role of NGOs, community-based organisations and individuals
Community-based schools in rural areas
Civil society-based education systems in cease-fire areas
Christian education
NGO and community-based organisation education and education support activities
Culture and literature committees


In September 2007, Burma/Myanmar experienced its largest popular uprising since 1988. The protests, which posed the first serious challenge to the military regime in nearly 20 years, were widely perceived as an outburst of popular frustration about the pervasive failure of the State to provide for the basic welfare of its citizens. From January on, the ’88 Generation Students Group[2] led small-scale demonstrations that focused mainly on economic and social issues. Several signature campaigns tried to motivate people to write to the government describing their everyday problems, including rising food prices and the lack of access to education (Thawnghmung and Myoe 2008; see also the chapters by Horsey and Win Min in this publication ). In the international media, the uprising was often described as the ‘Saffron Revolution’, because it was led by thousands of young Buddhist monks—a fact that took most Burma/Myanmar experts by surprise. In view of the economic hardships they faced and the multitude of social-welfare functions they performed, the Buddhist monks’ leading role in the uprising is not incomprehensible. Most importantly, monastic education has long served as a stopgap function for the failure of the state-run education system. In the years before the uprising, the teaching load of the monks had increased tremendously as fewer and fewer parents could afford to send their children to a state-run school. At the same time, due to growing poverty, many ordinary people could donate less and less to the monks, who rely entirely on alms for their own funding. Shortly before the demonstrations, many monks allegedly could afford no more than one meal a day. As the example of the Sangha [3] suggests, the September uprising can therefore be seen as the outcome of an overstraining of community self-help networks trying to cope with the pervasive failure of the welfare state.

Civil-society development is a relatively new topic in Burma/Myanmar studies, as it has long been assumed that civil society cannot exist fully in such an authoritarian context (see, for example, Steinberg 1999). Contrary to such assumptions, some more recent studies have found that civil society has been (re)-emerging in the past few years (see, for example, Heidel 2006; ICG 2001; South 2004). As this author has argued elsewhere, spaces for civil-society actors in authoritarian Burma/Myanmar exist in at least two areas in which the authoritarian state is weak or failing: first, in various sectors of the weak welfare state; and second, in some of the negotiated spaces of relative ethnic autonomy in the cease-fire areas (Lorch 2006, 2007).[4] Against this backdrop, the (re)-emergence of civil society-based self-help groups in the education sector is part of a larger trend that has been taking place in Burma/Myanmar in recent years: the military regime has started to tolerate welfare provision by civil-society actors in areas of tremendous welfare need that the State is unable or simply unwilling to deal with itself (Lorch 2007). Even though education is highly regarded in Burma/Myanmar, the state-run education system has been deteriorating continuously, in terms of accessibility and quality. In some rural areas, for instance, public schooling is not available at all, either because the government has never constructed a school building in the village or because teachers refuse to go to these remote areas (see also Marie Lall’s chapter in this publication). Moreover, teachers and professors often lack basic qualifications, because the state-run teacher-training system has been steadily degrading. As a consequence, civil society-based organisations have begun to provide makeshift solutions to bridge the accessibility gap. At the same time, the commercial private sector has started to move into the quality gap and several private schools catering to the middle class have started operating in recent years (see Lall’s chapter in this volume). In contrast with the non-profit-making civil society-based models, however, these schools usually charge quite high fees.

In principle, education should be a priority sector for international engagement, as it is a key to national development (Tin 2004), along with improvements in other important welfare sectors such as health. Moreover, if donors were able to engage with civil-society actors in the education sector, this could be a starting point for gradually changing Burma/Myanmar’s authoritarian political culture (see Han Tin in this volume). The continuing engagement of the UN International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) in Burma/Myanmar’s education sector provides evidence that the donor community takes the importance of education for development seriously.[5] The role of the international aid community in the field of education has, however, so far been limited, as the government is highly suspicious of international involvement this sector, which—despite poor resource allocation—it considers an area of national interest. In particular, there is almost no institutionalised cooperation between donors and local civil-society actors in the field of education and information about the state of civil-society activities in this area remains scarce. Against this backdrop, this chapter focuses on an analysis of what spaces are available for civil-society actors in the education sector.[6] It argues mainly that even though civil-society groups have managed to bridge some of the gaps that exist in the formal education sector, they lack the capacity to provide a substitute for a functioning state-run education system. Due to the lack of reliable data, the findings presented here should be regarded as preliminary results intended to inspire further research and discussion.

[1] This a modified and updated version of an earlier article on the same topic (Lorch 2007).

[2] The ’88 Generation Students Group comprises former student leaders of the 1988 uprising, who were released from jail in 2004. On 22 August 2007, several prominent ’88 Group leaders were arrested again for their role in leading the demonstrations.

[3] Community of Buddhist monks and nuns in Burma/Myanmar.

[4] In 2001, an International Crisis Group (ICG 2001) report first referred to the existence of civil-society organisations in areas of welfare demands not met by the State, particularly in ethnic areas. Since the late 1990s, several experts have pointed to the enlargement of civil-society spaces in ethnic areas (for example, Purcell 1999:89ff.; Smith 1999:37–49; South 2004:233).

[5] UNICEF is active mainly in early childhood development, the establishment of child-friendly schools and education activities related to HIV/AIDS prevention (UNICEF 2008a, 2008b). Moreover, from 1994–2002, the Human Development Initiative (HDI) of the UN Development Program (UNDP) ran an education project in Burma/Myanmar. In 1994, a ‘Community Learning Centre component’ was introduced within the framework of this project. The Community Learning Centre subproject was funded by UNDP and conducted mainly by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO 2002: for a short description, see chapter 4.3).

[6] Most of the information presented here was gathered in field trips between 2004 and early 2007. Several interviews were also conducted after September 2007 in order to assess the effects of the latest government crackdown on the civil-society initiatives reported.